The Review: I’ve never really been a fan of transfers of old 80s and 70s movies to Blu Ray – if anything, the super high definition aspect takes away from the quaint, dodgy “tracking” visuals of the old VHS. Stop motion and green screen visual effects also don’t translate too well, either. There’s something about high def that really accentuates the blemishes that the filmmakers patently had not considered back in the day when they were making the movie. Late last year, retro supreme “Hidden gem” wonder company Arrow Video announced that The Stuff was up for the same treatment – and suddenly, I found myself discarding my values and opinion and started ticking away the days till the release.
Boy, did that day take its time coming. March 10th 2014 sees Arrow Video’s effort in re-releasing The Stuff on BluRay for the first time, with accompanying DVD. I’ve owned every iteration/release of Larry Cohen’s bonkers “The Stuff” – three video tapes, from the original CBS Fox release, through to the Video Collection budget label. I even tracked down the original CBS Fox VHS of A Nightmare on Elm Street just to own the trailer for The Stuff. A trailer, it must be said, is sublime in its origin playing as a break in the messages to bring about an important message that a killer foodstuff is out there and that you should avoid it at all costs.
And then, in late 2000, Anchor Bay gets its paws on for the first ever DVD release. I remember receiving that disc with baited breath; a commentary by director Cohen and the trailer meant suddenly, a crisp picture was in store. That said, the Anchor Bay DVD was the first time I’d seen the film in crisp detail. Some of the effects (particularly the green screen of the kid in the tanker truck) really brought out the jarring B movie effects, with the result of watching the film nearly as a making-of documentary. A blow by blow account of the effects and quite obviously how they were done. Nothing could really quite recapture the battered, pause-stricken VHS tape of old – but there was a commentary. I own a further three versions of the movie on DVD. One of them is clearly a dodgy Malaysian DVD with different artwork and no extras. The UK saw fit to release the film as part of an extensive “B movie” collection, both as a pack and individually, replete with the Anchor Bay commentary extra goodies, despite not advertising them on the cover. Finally, in the US two years ago, Midnight Madness release another version not worth buying, as it turns out – but bought by me in the sole instance of being something of a completest.
So, here’s the Arrow Video Blu Ray release. The content of the disc on this release has obviously been made by a fan who’s nearly in love with the film as I am. There’s a menu screen, for a start – the theme from one of the commercials plays happily over a montage of clips from the movie which lasts about 60 seconds. Not all BluRay releases get even this treatment; they’re fairly content just to start the film and have their ribbon advertise scene selections etc. So, here’s our first indication that Arrow have done well. Next up are the special features which, it must be said, are split between the digital and physical. I’ll tackle them one at a time:
Trailer: a crisp and well-restored 1min 36sec trailer (the original American release) possesses the requisite thrills. Sure, you can see this on YouTube – but what you don’t get there is…
Darren Bousman’s Trailer Commentary: the director of Saw II and Saw III has about as much screen time as the trailer on this disc, briefly explaining The Stuff’s influence on his filmmaking, and proceeds to continue talking over the trailer. It’s not so much a commentary on the trailer, as it is a two minute interview with Bousman which merely cuts to the trailer. This is taken from Trailers From Hell – but still, it’s a welcome side note.
Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff: Making Larry Cohen’s Classic Creature Feature (52min 11sec): Okay, now we’re in business. For die-hard obsessives, I’m afraid to say that this documentary really won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about the production of the movie. Part hazy recollection, part subversive commentary on just how daft the film is, this documentary is glued together by very recent, exclusive interviews with writer/director Larry Cohen, producer Paul Kurta, mechanical makeup effects artist Steve Neill, lead actress Andrea Marcovicci and our old own critic and author Kim Newman, all of whom ruminate and speculate on why the movie is thought of as a cult classic. What is interesting is – with the exception of Newman – just how soft everyone comes across, apart from Larry himself. Steve Neill and Paul Kurta in particular are not too good at concealing the fact that Cohen is a hard-driver and that the film was truly a slog to get through. Marcovicci spends most of her time smiling, trying very hard to recollect what actually went on; she’s clearly moved on, but retains a fondness for the film (which is news to me as a fan, as I thought she’d disowned it.) Cohen himself is as studious and insightful as always – everyone else, including Newman, remarks on just how crazy and slapdash the whole affair is. Cohen sticks by his allegorical guns. As someone who’s firmly in the middle, it’s lovely to be the middle man for once.
And as for the transfer – well, it’s pretty damned good. Watching this 2K restoration has its pros and cons if you’re a die-hard fan, though. On the plus side you can really pick out little details over and above what’s seen in the DVD release. You can read text on some of the props, and in a number of scenes, you can see the bottom of frame. The post office scene, for example, when the camera pans left just before Charlie punches the door open reveals someone’s hair/top of their head beneath the camera frame. Which leads us nicely on to the not-so-good aspects. The green screen isn’t just apparent, now – it practically has neon lights blinking “LOOK AT ME!” which would take anyone who hasn’t seen it before right out of the film. By anyone, obviously, I mean anyone who’s not on nodding terms with terrific B movie nonsense. It’s not enough – never enough<!> – to ever take me out of the movie.
Also available, thankfully – especially those of us in the UK – is a reversible sleeve for the jacket. A newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin is what greets you on the front cover; a fine effort – but big shoes to fill when you consider that the original green-faced classic by mega-genius Graham Humphreys adorns the other side. I know which side of the sleeve I’ll be using! There’s also a booklet available which unfortunately didn’t come with the screener I was sent, but I am sure it’s very revealing. Also revealing is the absence of Anchor Bay’s DVD commentary – which I obviously consider to be one of the best commentary tracks ever made. Oh well.
And so to the film…
Well, those of you who know me well enough as a film critic know that I don’t award anything higher than an 8 out of 10 in my reviews. Let me put you out of your misery, this is the 10-out-of-10 movie to end them all. I’ve always said RoboCop is the greatest movie ever made. Well, “The Stuff” is my favourite movie of all time. I don’t expect you to understand, appreciate or even agree with me. You have your own shitty retrograde nonsense you consider to be your favourite film, and I have mine.
In a nutshell, a dizzy old miner finds some white stuff bubbling up from the snow-laden ground. He does what anyone else would do – sticks his finger in it and puts it in his mouth. It tastes good. Fast forward, and it’s in containers being sold in every store available, and marketed on TV, radio and billboards. The old geezers at ice cream HQ hire David “Moe” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to penetrate the company and find out its secret. He quickly hooks up with Nicole (Marcovicci) who came up with the campaign and the name, and they set out on a quest to get to the bottom of this dessert sensation and find out more about. Along the way, they find out that it’s a genetic, natural organism that – once digested – eats you from within and turns you into a sort of communist proponent of mass, natural genocide. This device gives us numerous opportunities for gaping mouths, head explosions, and white goop spraying around everywhere. A little kid named Jason saw it moving and has developed a fear of it; trashing a supermarket and going mental whilst his family get hooked. Jason is rescued by Moe and together they enlist Paul Sorvino’s right-wing military nut to bring The Stuff down. As I’m typing this, I’m realising just how silly this sounds.
But there you go. This IS silly stuff. What it actually is, is an allegory for cigarettes and – more presciently anyway – big pharma. Mega multinational conglomerates will stop at nothing to foist products on to us which are fatal as long as they are making money. The FDA is in the pocket of the American dollar, and release this material without trail, as Danny Aiello’s character forcefully convinces Moe “If there’s no reason to forbid a product, then we have to okay it”. In just that one sentence alone, it tells us everything we need to know. And it’s not just big pharma and blindsided reactionary genocide perpetrated by big companies that are to blame. Cohen seems to suggest that we are to blame, too. Do you smoke? Well, that’ll kill you. That sweaty kebab you had on the way home from the pub last night? Guess what…
Then there’s the alternate viewpoint; coming as it did in 1985, just as AIDS was breaking out – if the Earth is giving off a natural source of destruction disguised as a food, then surely mother nature is trying to eradicate humanity by attacking the internal digestive organs. Is it a coincidence that AIDS appears shortly thereafter attacking a different set of organs? Maybe Cohen was on to something, here. As he mentions in my interview with him, AIDS was a stronger component of his follow-up movie It’s Alive II: Island of the Alive – afterall, it concerns itself with killer offspring – but nevertheless, but my favourite movie and the best movie ever made are both well ahead of their time. One could easily argue that the wrong one got remade. Afterall.
The Stuff as a movie, purely from an objective viewpoint, isn’t the best made movie in the world. Some of the editing choices in particular are especially dire; usually around intense action scenes. That said, this is a product of intensely cheap labour, but very obviously coupled with a sense of art of art’s sake. There’s real love here in the script and for every bad cut there’s a superb and wry observation. The entire movie is blanketed by a terrific performance by Tony-award winning Michael Moriarty playing it all Southern “Every time people gimme money, I always want ‘Moe’!”. The affable, charming rogue who’s playing up his dumb exterior to work his own way within the company is a wonderful idea never really seen since in a movie. Andrea Marcovicci is the straight ‘man’ – and absolutely gorgeous, as well. Scot Bloom got a lot of stick for his performance as Jason, but I think it’s one of the hardest characters in one of the most sincere story arcs in the movie – and at a tender eleven years of age, he does a remarkably good job of it.
As a whole, the movie is just a lot of fun. And it’s a cool 86 minutes in length. I had absolutely no idea that The Stuff had so many fans that Arrow felt the need to release a package like this – but they have! It makes me smile that there are enough people out there who like it enough to warrant Arrow Video a release. If you’ve not seen the movie and are now considering checking it out, then you’ll probably chalk it up as campy B movie nonsense – which, inevitably, it is.
As I alluded to earlier in this write-up, though, The Stuff is one of “those” films from your childhood – just as The ‘Burbs and Big Trouble in Little China was for many, too. So if you missed the boat, lower your expectations. As for the rest of us who can literally never get enough of The Stuff; you’re in for a treat. Arrow have done a stonkingly good job with this one; you can’t afford not to get your hands one a copy. (10/10 ) (It’s all relative, you understand!)
*Arrow Video’s release of “The Stuff” is available to buy and rent from March 10th, 2014. Pre-order here: www.arrowfilms.co.uk)
Reviewed By: Andrew MacKay
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